Issue Number: 99
All human life proliferates in the drawings on the walls of Chris Orr RA’s Battersea studio. Fiona Maddocks finds the printmaking professor in reflective mood as he prepares to publish his visual diaries as an artist’s book.
Chris Orr RA photographed in his studio by Eamonn McCabe
Lion tamers, strongmen, mermaids, elephants, vultures, saucy couples, grubby fairgrounds, a classical Venus here, a Toulouse-Lautrec danseuse there: all life crowds into Chris Orr’s teeming images. To see one is to enter a world of glorious human chaos, with Orr the grand puppeteer, pulling strings to impose his own kind of order.
This distinctive artist-printmaker, who was born in Islington 65 years ago and became an RA in 1995, has been compared to the political satirists Hogarth and Gillray. The difference is that Orr’s pictures smile more and wag their fingers less. They seek to celebrate life, not to moralise or carp.
For the past nine years, Orr has lived and worked in a former stable-block, built around 1895, near the Thames in Battersea. Family home and studio adjoin. When you ring and are told, ‘I’ll see if he’s working next door’, this response is literal, not euphemistic.
The shock of entering the small, cell-like space, lit by northern skylights, could scarcely be greater. Orr’s jostling pictures lead you to expect friendly muddle, if not fecund mess. On the contrary, it is pristine. The walls are pale as clotted cream, the paint work bright white, the carpet spotless as clean sand. There are no spattered brushes or oozing tubes of paint; no clippings or shavings or debris, only a heady scent of joss sticks.
‘Hang on, though,’ Orr interrupts, seeing my undisguised astonishment. ‘This also doubles as a studio for my wife Kate, an actor who gives voice classes here. Plus I mainly use watercolours, which are quite well behaved in terms of spillage. I have other places I go to make a mess.’
As Professor of Printmaking at his alma mater, the Royal College of Art, for the past decade, Orr has always found corners there to work. When that post comes to an end this summer, he also has an etching workshop in Wandsworth.
‘But these kinds of workshop places are dictatorial. You’re trying to avoid machinery and acids and generally keep out of the way. This is the place I come to have ideas. I like the fact that it’s enclosed, with no view.’
The studio once belonged to the sculptor and former ARA Charles Sergeant Jagger, best known for his war monuments, notably the Royal Artillery Memorial 1914-18 at Hyde Park Corner. No sign of him remains. ‘Only his ghost… I keep finding connections. He was a student at the RCA too, and my work on the Somme seems to link with his preoccupations. I love all that.’
Orr is referring to Moo Cow Farm of 2007, his large painting about the Battle of the Somme, exhibited in last year’s Summer Exhibition and a tribute to his paternal grandfather, who fought and died there. Now Orr has turned his attention to his other grandfather with a picture for this year’s Summer Show entitled General Strike or A Good Day Out. Cricket bat manufacturers, lingerie makers, dancers, clock makers and other unsung protesters of May Day 1926 populate a busy street scene. ‘I’ve been thinking about the past a lot. You do as you get older. My maternal grandfather was hit on the head by a policeman’s truncheon in the General Strike.’ Struck dead? ‘No. But still, it’s a good story.’
Brimful of visual echoes – picture postcards, nursery rhymes and folk tales, post-war memorabilia – Orr’s work has often been called quintessentially British. The 1981 etching A to Z, one of his best loved images and famous as a poster, is a hymn of praise to a singularly English lavatorial sense of humour: A is for ant poo, Z is for zebra manure. Yet, of late, he has broadened his reach, travelling the world for inspiration.
‘My work’s changing a lot. I’m hungry for new material. Now I’m as likely to get on a plane to do my fieldwork.’ A recent exhibition, Cities of Holy Dreams, comprised drawings and prints of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo, as well as London. ‘I went to the top of the Gherkin and drew. Then I decided to do the same with the Forbidden City in Beijing. So I blagged my way to somewhere with a good vantage point of Tiananmen Square. But then the officials said, “No. You can take photos but you mustn’t draw”, which I thought was an interesting reflection on art.’
This is a busy year for Orr, a blue-eyed, genial, elfin figure, who might have stepped out of one of his own pictures. In addition to leaving the RCA, he has a book, The Multitude Diaries, being published by the Royal Academy in June. It has no text or narrative, only Orr’s quixotic drawings, taken from A3 sketch books he has used since the 1970s.
‘It is 238 images, a source book, an entertainment and something of a mystery. It’s important that it’s cheap. I regard Tom Phillips RA’s A Humument as a prototype: an artist’s book you can actually afford to buy.’ The proofs of Orr’s book are on the desk in front of us. ‘My characters recur and mutate. It’s a diary but not in a conventional sense. It’s more a waking dream.’
Many artists are only too keen to share their nightmares. Chris Orr makes us willing and glad spectators in his robust and good-humoured dreams.